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Hipsters Against the (Political) Machine

Hipsters Against the (Political) Machine

By Heather Wilhelm - July 5, 2011

In an opening scene of "Napoleon Dynamite," a 2004 film highlighting teenage perils and triumphs in a middle-of-nowhere Idaho town, the title character, a tall, gawky ostrich of a kid, disconsolately boards a school bus. He slumps into a seat, all nerd.

"What are you going to do today, Napoleon?" a kid nearby pipes up.

Napoleon, refusing eye contact, replies in utter disgust. "Whatever I feel like I wanna do. Gosh!"

This, to some Americans, is the essence of libertarianism -- and "Whatever I feel like I wanna do," they fear, does not involve soup kitchen volunteerism or Sunday churchgoing. Rather, many associate libertarianism with gun stockpiles, pot farms, questionable morals and weirdo rich guys who try to build their own free-floating, law- and tax-free utopias. (This actually happened in the '70s, by the way, but the touchy-feely libertarian Republic of Minerva was quickly taken over by the punchy, but clearly less enlightened, nation of Tonga.)

Some of these stereotypes, admittedly, aren't completely baseless. But as Reason magazine editors Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch point out in their new book, "The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America," serious libertarianism is lot less crazy -- and can arguably have more merit -- than the tired, overcooked and sometimes gag-worthy main courses on the American political menu today.

Modern American politics, Gillespie and Welch argue, have devolved into a bipartisan farce. Together, Republicans and Democrats form a spendthrift duopoly fueled by "two-party tribalism" -- and while the parties may squabble on certain policy differences or grandstand about who gets to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, over the past decade they've shared three deep and passionate aligning interests: expanding bloated government programs, tossing around bailouts, and blowing the national budget through the moon.

Related story: A Q&A with Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch

Are there differences between Republicans and Democrats? Sure. But over the past few years, at least when it comes to big-picture financial issues, they're often just matters of degree. We are running out of money; something, it seems, has got to give. To paraphrase columnist Mark Steyn, we used to be rich enough to get away with this sort of malarkey. Now, as he wrote last year, "We're too broke to be this stupid."

And too broke, Gillespie and Welch argue, to maintain our current two-party lockdown. They write: "The same revolutionary forces that have already upended much of American commerce and society over the past forty years" -- such as "a loss of brand loyalty" and "the increasing assertion of independent individual choice" --are "at long last beginning to buckle the cement under the most ossified chunk of American life: politics and government." Americans are increasingly declaring themselves as political independents (38 percent of voters, by one count) and, Gillespie and Welch contend, many of them are drifting towards a "broadly libertarian vision of limited government and social tolerance."

"The Declaration of Independents" is a refreshing political book in that it kind of, well, hates politics, and it's worth reading on this issue alone. The authors compare the American political scene to an Edgar Allen Poe-style torture chamber, while declaring politics "a lagging indicator of change in America, the last person in the room to get the joke, the last man to buy the Nehru jacket or stock in Snapple." They argue, rather convincingly, that anyone who invests a great deal of time worrying about the minutiae of the two party platforms, or even taking them seriously, is likely on a fool's errand.

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Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Austin,Texas. Her work can be found at  http://www.heatherwilhelm.com/ and her Twitter handle is @heatherwilhelm.

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